After Every Trauma I’ve Faced as a Black Woman, I’ve Turned to the Woods
My experience of racial violence started in childhood. In middle school I trembled exiting the school bus one day, just minutes after classmates knocked my head into the back of the brown bus seats. I saw flashes of those same peers who not long before called me the N-word and versions of it while they chanted, drumming their index fingers on The Magic School Bus picture books. They followed up with whispers about the size of my lips and the watermelon printed on one of my “knockoff” T-shirts.
For solace I took walks in wooded areas with my grandfather on metaphorical treasure hunts in Connecticut—and around Sharon, Massachusetts, where I grew up. I laughed until my stomach cramped while my dad pushed me round and round on a makeshift tire swing in a local park. I made up silly outdoor games with my brothers. And I went on peaceful walks with my mom to a “special rock” where we paused life, easing the pains of a world making me grow up too fast.
Nature fortified my resilience as a biracial woman of color, eroding my ruminating thoughts with each light whisk of the breeze, trickling creek, and rustle of wildlife. As I’ve grown into adulthood, I’ve found myself turning to nature again and again—after the murder of George Floyd and countless other Black Americans at the hands of police, after an aggressive display of racism in Central Park against Christian Cooper, and after countless other acts of violence against people of color. That’s because nature promotes justice by healing generational trauma, a salve that feels almost instinctual.
I’m certainly not the only one who has found a refuge from racism here. After her family member was almost lynched, a friend visited parks to combat her risk of suicide. Other women of color described accessibility to the outdoors as a respite—healing, even if for a moment—from feeling ostracized and alone. “Being a woman of color leads to a lot of stigmatization,” says Melissa Rimple, a physical therapist from Houston, Texas. “Hiking with my dogs has really helped me escape from the rest of the world. Especially during this pandemic when being alone seems isolating, I’ve really appreciated my time outside to avoid the bombardment of death and tragedy.”
Despite the powerful ways nature can promote healing, according to a Center for American Progress report, communities of color are three times more likely than white communities to live in places deprived of nature. In communities of color with low income, more than 76% of people have less access to nature nearby than the rest of the United States. In 26 states, Black communities were found to have the least access to public land and parks—at the highest levels of nature deprivation.
My resilience traces to my ancestors, who tilled America’s land, used the cover of its woods to escape slave catchers, and flourished on its soil despite the white supremacist barriers built against them. Equitable access to nature is one of the most important yet often overlooked actions to address systemic racism.
“Back in fifth grade I tried to overachieve my way into worthiness as the only African American child in a ‘gifted and talented’ program. I won every award I could, but I never felt an embrace from my peers or understanding from my teachers,” says Chika Anyasodike, a creative producer living in New York. “One day my teacher had planned a small excursion for our class to explore Ship Island, a small body of land right off the coast of Biloxi, Mississippi. I am not sure if I had ever stepped foot on a beach before then, but the sun that day knew me so well. Nature literally grounded me–embraced me as one of Her own. On the bus ride home, I couldn’t help but feel that a secret had been whispered in my ear: ‘Never alone.’”